'When the Killing's Done': T.C. Boyle's novel of a California war over invasive species
California author T.C. Boyle's novel "When the Killing's Done" is a book-length fable of what happens when two camps of environmentalists go to war over what to do about invasive species on California's Channel Islands. Boyle will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Seattle Public Library's main branch.
Special to The Seattle Times
T.C. BoyleThe author of "When the Killing's Done" will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Seattle Public Library's Central Branch, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org). Co-sponsored by the University Book Store (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
'When the Killing's Done'
by T.C. Boyle
Viking, 369 pp., $26.95
T.C. Boyle is a tireless researcher and a "true believer," in the Eric Hoffer sense of the word. His passion for the environment and for social justice comes through in most of his writing, certainly in this novel and "Tortilla Curtain," among others.
Sometimes he tells us more than we need or want to know, which is a problem with his new novel, "When the Killing's Done." This novel's central conflict is a complicated conundrum that needs a clear telling, but Boyle has padded the narrative with everybody's backstory.
There is good reason for some of this embellishment, because everyone intimately involved in the conflict has a history with the locale and the way it impacted and formed their lives. But it detracts from the important ongoing story. Here is the sort of overwriting that makes a reader begin to nod: "She'd wake in the dark to Alma's cries, take her to bed with them to feed her, then get up and make Greg his breakfast, fried rice, four eggs, mackerel or abalone or Canadian bacon seared in the pan, toasted cheese, coffee by the vat ... she became a genius of the quick but nutritious meal, stir-fry mainly, cauliflower, bok choy, mushrooms, snow peas, bean sprouts ... "
The story is this: California's Channel Islands, five of which are set off the coast near Santa Barbara, are some of the most isolated islands on earth. Such isolation has helped preserve more than 1,000 species of plants and animals, 12 of which are unique to the islands. This fact sets the stage for a showdown — more like a smackdown — between two factions of environmentalists, each completely convinced of the rectitude of their individual beliefs and their plan for protecting these islands from change, environmental degradation or contamination.
One side is led by Alma Boyd Takesue, a National Park Service biologist, who is trying to preserve island native species by bringing in hunters to kill rats and feral pigs. These creatures are not native; the rats have swum ashore after ships have foundered. Now, both species are about to be eliminated by Alma's plan.
The other side, led by Dave LaJoy, a local businessman, BMW driver and a man with an internal rage that sometimes boils over, believes that no living thing of any species should be killed for any reason. His crowd is made up of vegans, his folk-singer lover, Anise, and a ragtag bunch of college kids who took a class and fell into step with a belief system larger than themselves.
Boyle is careful not to trivialize either side's position. In so doing he has written a polemical tract, laying out both sides of the question and equipping the reader to decide which group is right. It could work as a script for a PBS or Discovery Channel documentary, such is the lore and meticulous detail layered into the narrative.
His attempt to palliate the effect of this didactic approach was to create big stories for his characters. Each family tale would make a great short story or novella, but sometimes enough is too much; such is the case here.